Cleaning Your Ductwork Could Mean Getting Cleaned Out

According to Consumer Reports Money Adviser, having your home’s ductwork cleaned may clean out your heating vents … and your checking account. Unless, when you poke you head into the vent you see mold, there is no evidence that spotless ducts will make your life any easier or cleaner.

And according to the Environmental Protection Agency:

Airducts diagram (EPA)

Structural diagram of an air duct (EPA)

“Duct cleaning has never been shown to actually prevent health problems. Neither do studies conclusively demonstrate that particle (e.g., dust) levels in homes increase because of dirty air ducts. This is because much of the dirt in air ducts adheres to duct surfaces …  air ducts are only one of many possible sources of particles that are present in homes. Pollutants that enter the home both from outdoors and indoor activities such as cooking, cleaning, smoking, or just moving around can cause greater exposure to contaminants than dirty air ducts. Moreover, there is no evidence that a light amount of household dust or other particulate matter in air ducts poses any risk to your health.”Money Adviser also warns that poorly trained workers might damage your heating system. Companies that offer free “tests” will claim to find mold and then hike the initial cleaning price quote.If you decide to have your ducts cleaned after an inspection, ask the sales rep to show you exactly what he found and to put into a written contract what process the company will use to do the job. Before you sign on the dotted line, check with your local Better Business Bureau (, Yelp!, and your local consumer protection agency (it might be your state’s attorney general’s office).


The Consumer Gal and I are about to have our book, Enough of Us – which deals with another realm – published in a few weeks. In preparation for the big event we need to concentrate on that project. So for the next eight weeks or so, I will be suspending my semi-monthly Consumer Guy full-length blog posts and, instead, providing  a short consumer tip each week (I hope).

If you would like to learn more about our book that deals with issues of ethics and procreation, please visit our other website, Many thanks for your interest.




Why are there so many lights on when the lights are off?

          I recently conducted an inventory in my house . . . in the dark. Well, almost dark. Just before going to sleep I went from room to room counting the number of lights that were on. Nightlights, digital clocks, power indicators on electronics, and even an indicator on our emergency standby plug-in flashlight.

         Our microwave oven, toaster oven and gas range each showed me the time . . . within a three-foot span! In all, there were more than 50 lights on in the house. It’s nuts!

          Almost one third of all electricity use in California homes is attributable to electronic devices, especially home entertainment equipment and computers. The rest goes to refrigerators, heaters, air conditioners, lighting, stoves, laundry appliances, pools and the like.

          All this electricity use contributes to higher fuel prices, air pollution, the outflow of cash to foreign nations and dependence on not-so-nice countries for fuel. To the rescue (I’m being optimistic here) comes the California Energy Commission. Never heard of it? Neither have most Californians.

          As appliances become more energy efficient, in step all the gadgets, gizmos and whatnots to take up the slack. And heading them off at the pass, the commission is about to ask the electronics industry to think efficiently. So what’s the problem? Well, it has a name: the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). Does it have clout? Let me answer listing some of its members: Apple, HP, Intel; you get the idea. And the CEA is behind a bill introduced by California Assemblymember Charles Calderon that would curtail the commission’s authority.

Video gaming makes demands on power supply
Sony PlayStation 3 equipment bundle

          On the other side of the argument is PG&E, Northern California’s mega-utility, which likes the idea of energy efficiency. The CEA, however, makes the case that convergence, where multiple functions are merged into one device as with smart phones, saves on electricity.  By allowing users to avoid employing several different devices to run a variety of functions, they are more efficient than, say, using a cell phone, a computer, and a digital camera, each of which has to be charged or plugged in.

          The state claims that updated efficiency standards would save state residents $7 billion per year, reducing the need for additional power plants and lowering water use by 70 billion gallons. When it comes to water, California is very insecure; so insecure, in fact that if it were a person, no team of psychiatrists could help.

          California is famous (infamous?) for its leadership in environmental regulation. If the state requires greater efficiencies for a variety of gadgets, it’s likely that either manufacturers will sell those more-efficient items nationwide for the sake of financial efficiency, or that other states will adopt similar requirements. “These standards will ensure that new products sold in California contain the latest and smartest technology so that our products sip rather than gulp energy,” said Noah Horowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council, quoted in the San Jose Mercury News.

          Because the California Energy Commission has not yet defined what a computer is (you read that right), it is not clear whether so-called tablet devices will be included in the new requirements. But several popular implements will be facing efficiency upgrades, including gaming devices like Wii, PlayStation and Xbox, as well as monitors and subscription TV service set-top boxes.

          So what does this mean for you? It’s time for all of us to do our part. Where it’s practical, can’t we live with one fewer nightlight, unplugged cell phone rechargers, and audio systems plugged into power strips that we turn off when not in use? And if you live in a house, how many plugged-in lights do you have shining outside overnight? In an age when so many folks are worried about the national debt we’ll be leaving for our progeny, maybe we should all be thinking about how much of a messed-up environment they’ll be living in.

          Go California Energy Commission!

Here’s a Bright Idea – Energy Efficient Lightbulbs

In case you haven’t heard, the federal government is about to rock your dark little world. Before you go out and buy a lamp that uses a traditional incandescent bulb, keep in mind that buying replacement bulbs will be very difficult.
Here are the who, what, when, where, why and how of these changes:
Most ordinary bulbs, the type introduced by Tom Edison more than a century and a quarter ago, waste their energy consumption by putting out lots of heat. That’s why you can’t touch such a bulb with your bare hand after it’s been on for a moment or two. So, most of the energy is expended as heat, not light. The government wants less of that energy wasted. The aim is to save Americans $13 billion per year and reduce CO2 emissions by 100 million tons annually.
Starting next January, it will be lights out for traditional 100-watt bulbs. Manufacturers will be prohibited from making those bulbs as of that date. 75-watters go the following year. As of 2014, 60- and 40-watters will be discontinued. If you have a fixture that uses candelabra, appliance, or three-way bulbs (the ones that typically have two elements and can click to 50, 100 or 150 watts), not to worry; you’re protected for the foreseeable future.

Sylvania LED Bulb

     So what can we do to keep the lights on when we run out of old-style bulbs? There are plenty of alternatives around with more to come than you can shake a filament at. You probably already have compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs, in your home already. They are the ones that look like swirled soft ice cream cones. Some folks don’t like their spirally looks, the color of their light, or the fact that you can’t clip light shades onto them. The first two objections are being dealt with. Some newer versions encase the swirls in an outer globe. And there is a growing variety of shades of light available.
Halogen bulbs produce more light per watt than do incandescent bulbs. They’ve been around a while in the form of tubes that snap into clips at either end for use in lamps that are designed to accommodate them. They can, however, get very hot.  A greater variety of halogens is now available, including those that screw in like the incandescents.
I recently bought a bunch of flashlights that were on sale at a local electronics store for a buck apiece.
Each one is about the size of a lipstick except that it’s a little thicker. At the front end are nine tiny LED (short for light emitting diode) bulbs. The amount of light this thing emits is awesome. The LEDs don’t get hot because most of their energy – which comes from three AAA batteries (side note: how come there are no A or B batteries?) – goes to making light. The little suckers are amazingly bright. LEDs are the light of the future because of their small size, exceptionally long life, and their efficiency.
All of these alternative bulbs (while most of them are no longer bulb shaped, the term has come to mean almost any man-made item that gives off light) are much more expensive than traditional incandescents, they earn back their initial cost by using way less energy. And they tend to last a lot longer.
The October 2011 edition of Consumer Reports has a nice breakdown of a variety of bulb types, by function. It rates them according to brightness, expected bulb life, light color, warm-up time (for CFLs), and other characteristics.
Briefly, when shopping for bulbs, look for price, life expectancy in hours, brightness (in lumens), and color of the light. The colors can be cool or warm, daylight bright or slightly yellowish.

Ohm my Gosh: The Shocking Hidden Costs of Electric Vehicles

Hybrid Car

2011 Honda Insight hybrid

For most consumers, the idea of a vehicle that uses only, or mostly, electricity seems like a good way to save money in this time of high gas prices. But if you live in a state with high electricity rates, as I do, all-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, or mostly-electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, may cost you more than driving a hybrid like the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight. And maybe even more than an economical traditional small car.

 Here in California we pay about 35 percent more than the national average for electricity. We also use a multi-tiered system that charges households higher rates each for using more power.

 A Purdue University study released in January shows that the energy consumed by rechargeable vehicles is likely to mean that households that have these cars could be in for a shock, and I’m not referring to electrons. Where I live, in San Jose, we pay Pacific Gas and Electric12 cents per kilowatt hour, or Kwh (that’s equal to burning one watt for a thousand hours or a thousand watts for one hour) for the first 294 Kwh each month. Additional watts, up to 382 Kwh each month, are charged at the Tier 2 rate of 14 cents, . If a customer moves into Tier 3 pricing, the rate goes up to a whopping 29 cents. Yikes! That’s 2 ½ times the Tier1 rate. The idea is to discourage households from wasting all that energy, and PG&E isn’t grousing about the windfall either.

 That’s where the problem with rechargeable vehicles comes in. At Tier 3 and higher rates in the summer, it could cost customers in my area as much as 40 cents per Kwh to charge their cars. And even with rate plans that charge less for nighttime usage, it can be expensive to charge your car.

 California’s idea is to get folks to use less power in order to save on the state’s energy demands may backfire when it comes to inducing consumers to move to low-polluting electric cars. According to the Purdue study the plug-in Chevy Volt would increase average Americans’ electrical usage by 60 percent.

 In California, once you figure in the high sticker prices of electric vehicles – even after the income tax breaks that currently come with them – you would save money by instead buying a Prius, Insight, Honda Civic Hybrid, or even a regular high-mileage subcompact.

On the other hand, if gasoline prices rise to astronomical levels based on crude oil prices of over $170 per barrel, the picture will change in favor of all-electrics. In the meanwhile, Indiana, where households pay a flat eight cents per Kwh, might be the best example of places where electric vehicles make the most sense and the most cents.

 A bright note: California utilities are experimenting with programs that would charge – and, uh, bill, electric vehicles at a different rate from the rest of household use. This would encourage consumers to buy low-polluting vehicles and might even lower demand to the point where gasoline prices would moderate a bit.

Are you an Environmentally Conscious Consumer?

(The first in a recurring series on consumers’ impact of on the environment)

Going to a coffee place? Bring your own mug. Photo courtesy

We hear it time and again. Americans make up less than five percent of the Earth’s population and we consume approximately 25 percent of the world’s goods. Why and how? In a word: money. We have lots of it. And even when we may not have quite enough moolah to satiate our families’ desires for material goods, there seem to be few limits on how much we’re willing to borrow in order to satisfy our collective hunger. Credit cards, home equity loans and refinanced mortgages fuel our materialistic society.

And with those financial resources, we indulge ourselves in all sorts of stuff that strains our ecosystems, the air we breathe and our very lives. How many times have we seen so-called soccer moms driving around town alone, after they’ve dropped the kids off at . . . fill in the blank: school, soccer practice, dance lessons, Little League, etc. – in their Chevy Yukons or Ford Excursions? And as they go about their shopping chores they’re guzzling down (or is it “up”?) a gallon of gasoline every ten miles, give or take.

The law of supply and demand is going to change all that and more quickly than most of us think. Petroleum and natural gas are not renewable sources of energy. And prices at the gas pump are just beginning to show that. As countries like India and China (accounting for almost one half of the world’s population) modernize, the demand for fossil fuels, lumber and water is skyrocketing. One projection sees the price of gasoline in the U.S. to ratcheting up to eight dollars per gallon in the next ten years. And that’s in 2005 currency, not adjusted for inflation.

So what are you willing to do in order to contribute your fair share to – if not turn things around – at least slow the pace of consumption and the strain on Mother Earth? After all, at two-and-a-half bucks a gallon, a 40-gallon SUV gas tank now costs 100 bucks to refill.

There are waiting lists for 50 mpg Prius and Civic Hybrids now. When the cost of refilling large SUVS goes to over 300 dollars, where will you be? And a 20-mpg minivan is no bargain either.

Lumber and paper prices are rising as well. Virgin (i.e. not recycled) paper may soon be at a premium. That would be especially true if the current American administration runs into roadblocks from so-called tree huggers, a phrase loosely used these days as a term of derision for anyone who wants to place a priority on environmental protection over unfettered materialism and corporate profit.

What I’m driving at here is this. We can each play a part in reducing the stress on our planet and on each other. Let’s start with a few examples. You know all that paper that comes spewing out of your printer at home (and at work too, for that matter)? Do you toss it after you no longer need what you printed? It seems that most of what we print is stuff we really don’t need anyway. How about saving paper whose reverse side is blank and using it to print out the other stuff that doesn’t require pristine paper, like first drafts, email jokes and Web site purchase receipts? Using this simple method I’ve cut my paper use almost in half. If we all did this we could save gazillions of trees – give or take a zillion – each year. And are you meticulous about recycling paper? Come on! Big deal! For a provocative article on effects on the environment of Starbuck’s coffee cups, check out

If you’re driving a gas guzzler, think about a different choice next time. After all, what is an SUV? A sport car? Ha! Most of them are jacked-up, modified station wagons that car manufacturers equip with big tires and call sport utility vehicles. Can you say, “marketing to the gullible”? How many people ever take them off-roading? So where does the “sport” come in? For most folks a car with similar interior room will do just fine.

In the months ahead I will from time to time share more specific ideas on this topic. For now, please ponder the issue of an indulgent consumerist society for a few minutes before you kick back and crank up your DVD player or TiVo or VCR.